Twice-cooked Potato Bhajji with chillies and tomato

When I started this blog earlier this year, Amey took up a hobby he’s always had a latent interest in.

We’re short on the square footage so all he could have for his first foray into gardening was the little window ledge above our kitchen sink. I like to think my blog naming choice factored into what his first project was. But truth be told, that was decided by some really hot (we’re talking bright lights flashing all over the Scoville scale) chillies we happened to find at the Indian store one day. He carefully saved the seeds from capsaicin riddled beauties and tossed them into a seedling pot with a fervent prayer.

A slow two weeks went by with no results…

After a frantic consultation with the omnipresent gods of instruction on the WWW, we came to the conclusion that (thanks to some quite flawed direction from yours truly) he had put the seeds too deep into the soil. Careful digging unearthed a couple of sprouted seedlings struggling to find daylight. Words of reproach and apology were bandied at large and the seedlings were replanted just barely beneath the surface of the soil.

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Diwali sweets (faral) – Coconut-Semolina Laddoos

It’s Diwali…the festival of lights! Everywhere in India, diyas and electric lights brighten homes, turning night into day. This is a time for family and friends, festivities and merriment; wonderful food eaten next to flickering lights while enjoying shimmering and stentorian firecrackers…. an annual celebration of the triumph of light over darkness.


All these years, I’ve succumbed to the time-saving promise of the microwave pedha and quick-fix barfi. Not to take anything away from these convenient modern versions, but there is something to be said for the traditional fare, the ritual of planning your time and variety in the weeks before the festival, preparing to cook various Diwali delicacies, aside from the regular cooking of lunches and dinner. I thought I’d give this route a shot this time. I’ve been cooking for a while now. How hard could all of this be, right?

*Sigghh*
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Melons in Moscato and food firsts

I remember I had a sort of foodie aha! moment as a kid, the first time I was playing around with a rind of orange. I twisted it and it squirted out this sour-bitter yet wonderfully fragrant oil at me. I didn’t know about orange zest then but I do remember wondering whether it had any uses. Along similar lines, I’ve since wondered about many things… foodwise (I use that term loosely, after all one man’s idea of food is another man’s recurring nightmare)

So who was it who first…

…looked at a snail and thought, “Mmmm, that looks like good eats!”

…looked at the truffles pigs dug out and ate and thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for the pig….”

…had the guts to try tomatoes again for the first time after they had been declared poisonous.

…thought that burning his food would make it more edible.

…thought that the inside of a yam would be good to eat (despite the itchy, outer skin).
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Linguine with Mushrooms in a Lemon-Thyme sauce

When life tosses you lemons, what do you do? If you are anything like me, I guess you do your damnedest to lob them right back. The problem is, in this little game you have going on, life is almost always the stronger player, and it is harder to play that googly you just got tossed, especially if you weren’t expecting it. You blink and you miss, the bat kisses air, or worse, you hit the ball in a completely different direction, and not a good one. This is why you learn to make lemonade. (Not blinking would also be a good skill to learn, but “Constant vigilance!” à la Mad-eye Moody would be rather tiresome after a while.) Better to hold on to that lemon for a bit while you decide what to do with it. Lumbering about blindly never did anyone any good.

In case you are wondering, this is not how cricket is played. But we’re not talking about cricket so much as we are about lemons. In our house, we could go without milk and bread but there will always be lemons in the house…lemons and limes. My husband loves them more than he loves his guitar and his camera and that is saying something. Amey’s love of all thing sour is legendary. He adores lemons, loves limes, is enthralled by vinegars. His idea of ‘improving the flavour’ of any dish involves adding one of these ingredients. He is the only person I know whose fried rice is actually vinegar rice. If we had grown up in the United States, his favourite candy would have been Sour Patch kids, hands down, no contest.

College, while offering him several freedoms, also put in his sights, front and center, the tamarind and green mango vendor’s cart. This guy showed up with his cart, rain or shine, with kayris (green mangoes) just before summer and tamarind all year round.  While other kids were busy with restaurants, Amey snacked happily on morsels of green mango dressed in salt and chilli. The vendor knew him by name and had his order ready when he saw him coming. This guy was happily immersed in salt and sourness while the rest of the kids were flirting with alcohol.

Being married to someone who likes sour food and likes to cook comes with its challenges. He used it on everything with a heavy-handed abandon reminiscent of Paula Deen and butter. It took some time for me to convince him that not everyone thinks of lime juice as a staple. Granted his culinary quirk is way healthier than butter, but let me tell you, there is such a thing as too much acidity in your food. You will not know this until you have someone squeeze a whole lime into your plate of dal and rice…or make you a hot dog that could pass the litmus test. A chilli fiend and a lime fanatic…our early days in cooking bought some sore trials to its consumption for both of us. The years have taught us well, w-ell, maybe they have taught him better. I can still be heavy handed with the chilli. Amey, however, has honed his handling of the acid and citrus to a fine slant. Granted, he still puts too much vinegar on his rice. But now, it is his own plate of rice. He has learned that there is your own palette and that of others. More importantly, he has also found that he appreciates the subtlety of citrus as much as he enjoys the more in-your-face flavours.

One of his early experimentations was a take on a lemon cream sauce. A dish he loves to eat when we are out is the Chicken Tequila Fettucine served at California Pizza Kitchen. That pasta dish made him happy enough to try a version with cream and citrus on his own. Born out of this was a lemon-cream sauce. With some serious, careful honing, something I rarely have patience with, he has perfected the sauce. It is creamy, unctuous, just tart enough to make the presence of the lemon felt strongly but not overwhelmingly. A gentle, soothing sauce with a burst of refreshing flavour to bring sunshine to the most gloomy day.

Broken Linguine with mushrooms in a lemon, cream and thyme sauce
Serves 3-4

Garlic – 6 cloves, chopped fine
Red Onion – 1/2, diced fine OR Shallot – 2, diced fine
Thyme – 1 tbsp of leaves
Lemon zest – 1 fruit
Lemon juice – 1/2 of one fruit
Dried porcini or wild mushrooms – 1/2 cup (chanterelles would be excellent here)
Cream – 1/2 cup
Sausage (optional) – 2, diced
Cayenne pepper – 1/2 tsp
Orange Flower Honey – 1/2 tsp (use regular honey if you don’t have this)
Linguine – 3/4 box
Olive oil – 2 tbsp
Salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan for grating over

– Reconstitute the dry mushrooms in about a cup and half of boiled hot water. Set aside for about fifteen minutes until the mushrooms go soft and the water has become a rich, brown broth.
– Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Break the linguine into three pieces and throw into the pot. Boil pasta as per directions on box.
– Meanwhile, Heat the oil in a shallow pan on medium low. Add the garlic and fry until slightly brown.
– Add the onions and saute until translucent. Add the thyme.
– Roughly chop the reconstituted mushrooms and add to the pan, along with the broth. Mix to incorporate, then bring to a boil.
– Add the lemon juice and zest and cayenne pepper. Season with salt and pepper.
– Stir in the cream. Season with salt and pepper.
– Reduce heat and simmer the sauce for a bit and let reduce slightly. Add the honey and mix it in.
– Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add the sauce and toss together to coat the strands of pasta.

Serve with a fresh grating of Parmesan over each dish, along with some fresh ground pepper.

Cook’s notes:-
This sauce originated in a pure lemon and cream version, which made for some sticky pasta incidents. We tried variations with half-and-half, wine and vegetable and chicken broths. There was no definite depth of dimension until we started to use the mushroom broth (which, by the way, is now a favourite ingredient in our cooking). Amey balanced the flavours with some orange blossom honey which he’s partial to. Its citrus notes worked wonderfully in this sauce, making it one of the most delicious pasta sauces I’ve eaten. He’s also tried variations with other herbs. While they all work with varying degrees of success, we both agree that thyme works best, gently infusing and disappearing into the sauce more completely than anything else. Also it is great as an additional garnish.

What else you put into the pasta is entirely up to you. Shreds of roast chicken would be great, as would bacon. Leave the meat out completely and you have a vegetarian version. Strips of sautéed peppers, steamed asparagus or artichoke hearts would be brilliant with this sauce. I love to put sun-dried bits of tomato on mine. This is the sauce I will ask for more often than others when Amey decides to make pasta. To him, it is also an appreciation of how he and his tastebuds have evolved.

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Annie Somerville’s Polenta in a Gorgonzola cream sauce with Walnuts

Today, I woke up to a cat. Not my cat. I don’t have a cat. I wish I had a cat. Or a dog. I’m not particular on that point. I just wish I had a pet.  You may be wondering “Why is she making a big deal out of this? Cats, they’ve been around humans for millenia, haven’t they? It’s not like she came face-to-face with a dinosaur!” (That would have been some conversation starter, wouldn’t it? “Today, I met Barney. The real thing my dear! And you know, he’s more vivid mauve than purple, positively fuchsia!”)

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, on with the tale. As I was saying, on waking today, I came face-to-face with a cat. The sighting at close quarters was strange for a couple of reasons. First, I’d just woken from a strange dream involving Superman, the Incredible Hulk, the Cheshire cat and the Mad Hatter cooking together (I suspect this had something to do with watching too much TV and consuming some questionable leftover pie much too late last night, but I’m always glad when Johnny Depp shows up in my dream life, especially since he will never be there in the waking one…sigh). The last elusive image I had in my head was a cat grinning over a steaming pot, just before I woke from my weird shallows of slumber. I stumbled drowsily into the kitchen for a warm cuppa and rolled up the window shades to see a calm, grey tabby just sitting there, staring at me with perfect equanimity. As you can imagine, the feeling was surreal. Second, this would be an absolute first cat sighting for me in the environs of my apartment building. I’ve seen them sitting at windows as I pass by other places in the city. But, to my chagrin, these places are never around me. Not one person in the vicinity has ever had a cat as far as I can see. (I live around some pet-hating landlords.) Yet here was this one, an honest-to-goodness, fluffy grey cat with white socks, pale green-grey eyes and a lovely grey-white-black tail curled comfortably around her.

We stared at each other for a bit, motionless and silent. The cat kindly let me get a hold of my scattered senses; she seemed to have decided that any sudden moves might send me over the edge. Then slowly, deliberately, she lifted her paw in a half-greeting and then proceeded to give it a thorough washing. When she was done, she looked up and seemed a bit miffed that I still hadn’t moved. Her feline gestures seemed to suggest a slight impatience with the human. She got up gracefully, stretched in that mind-bogglingly flexible way that only cats can, and padded her way on silent paws to the edge of the lobby roof where she sat, giving me a reproachful look and a plaintive miaow. “Here I am,” she seemed to say, “out in the cold at your window and you won’t even offer me some milk! What would your mother say?” (My mother, while assiduously denying animals room and board, is nevertheless a famous feeder of stray cats. Famous. Ask any of our neighbours.) That look jolted me right out of my stupor. It was reminiscent of my nephew when he was younger and was told he couldn’t have any chocolate. Just so woeful. I looked about for some milk for her, but realised that if she had it, then me and Amey would have to do without. Telling my husband this early in the morning that he can’t have any milk (“because the cat asked for some”) might cause him to look about on how to get me committed. He’s a bear when he hasn’t had his morning coffee. So in the interest of my well-being, I tentatively offered her the last bit of the questionable pie.


She sniffed at it with suspicion, then proceeded to consume it with a rather browbeaten air, as will a guest when his hostess insists he try something he can’t stand, but is too polite to refuse. The deed done, she licked her whiskers clean and then proceeded to chew her tail in a gentle, abstracted fashion for a few minutes. Then, quite suddenly, with the air of the end of a performance, she stretched with an athlete’s commitment and took off, gracefully jumping onto a tree from the roof as she proceeded to make her way to the ground. Then, with a slow blink of those green eyes, she was gone, quite as suddenly as she had appeared into my life. No forwarding address, no P.O Box Number. Disconsolate, I could only hope she made her way home safely before the traffic picked up for the morning. This early morning event left me craving something warm, comforting and nourishing for a meal. With daydreams of having my own cat (or dog) someday, I thumbed through the books for inspiration. That’s when I spied this little recipe for polenta.

Polenta came into my culinary horizon fairly recently. There was a grilled version of polenta I ate as an appetizer at Greens restaurant that I fell head-over-heels in love with. The way you feel when you meet the one and wonder where they’ve been your entire life. Polenta is made rather easily from cornmeal and has a way of firming up as it cools down. This porridge is then sliced and browned on a skillet or toasted in the oven until its outsides crisp up a bit. It tastes of mushed up corn and is a blank palette for any number of flavours that you can throw at it. At Greens, I ate it with some mushrooms and it was one of the most delectable things I’ve ever eaten. This recipe was different. It called for the gentle poaching of ingredients in cream while you cooked, cooled and grilled the polenta. Some gorgonzola cheese and walnuts rounded out the flavours. A warming gem of a dish. It leaves you with the same contentment you get from having a warm and purring cat sitting on your lap.

Polenta and Walnuts with a Gorgonzola and herbed cream sauce
Adapted from Annie Sommerville’s Everyday Greens
Serves 3 to 4 as an entrée, maybe twice as many as an appetizer

For the polenta:
Water – 4 cups
Cornmeal – 1 cup
Olive oil – 2 tbsp
Parmesan cheese – 1/4 cup, grated
A quick two gratings of nutmeg and cardamom
Salt and pepper to taste

For the sauce:
Half-and half OR skimmed milk – 1 cup
Cream – 1 cup
Red onion – 1/2, sliced fine
Garlic cloves – 3 to 4, smashed with the flat of a knife, paper skins left on,
Bay leaf – 1
Fresh Thyme sprigs – 2
Fresh oregano sprig – 1
Sage – 3 leaves
Gorgonzola cheese – 3/4 cup, crumbled
Kasseri or Fontina cheese – 1/4 cup, grated
Walnut pieces – 1/2 cup, toasted
Basil leaves – a half-handful, chopped into a chiffonade

To make the polenta:
– In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Salt the water, then add the cornmeal. Lower the heat a bit to gently cook the polenta until it smoothly thickens, about 20 minutes or so.
– When the polenta is cooked, take it off the heat. Stir in the pepper, nutmeg, cardamom and olive oil.
– Pour into a 9″x15″ dish and allow it to cool. Upon cooling, slice the polenta into  six or eight squares (which can be cut into triangles if the dish is to be an appetizer).

To make the sauce:
– Combine the cream, milk, onion, garlic and herbs in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer the sauce. Allow the sauce to reduce slightly, cooking for about 15 minutes.
– Strain the cream sauce, then return to the saucepan. Add half the Gorgonzola cheese to it, whisking it in to melt, over low heat. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

To assemble the dish:
– While the sauce is cooking, pour a little olive oil onto a skillet. Lightly crisp the polenta slices on the skillet until golden brown. Alternatively you could place the slices with some olive oil into a pre-heated oven at 325°F for 15-20 minutes.
– Place a couple of square (or a couple of triangles) on a plate . Sprinkle some Fontina (or Kasseri) and some of the reserved Gorgonzola on the slices, then ladle over some of the sauce. Sprinkle with some of the walnut pieces and a generous amount of basil. Enjoy right away!

Cook’s notes:
I like lots of basil. So I didn’t didn’t bother with a chiffonade. Annie Sommerville suggests plating the polenta on a plate of arugula. I might have used it if I had it, or I would have used some watercress. Turned out I didn’t have any, so I just made up for the lack of it with lots of basil. (After the pictures, the dish went all green). The cooking of the sauce threw me a bit. I’ve never poached onions in cream before…to be frank, I’ve never poached onions in anything before. I’ve always browned them in oil or had them raw. The poaching here gently brings out the essence of the onion, herbs and the garlic. Sure, it all gets discarded but it has passed some of its soul onto the cream. It leaves behind a very luxurious, fragrant sauce that’s a real treat with the crisped polenta.

This is certainly a rich dish, but satisfying and very good with just the salad. As an appetizer, I would serve small individual portions to ensure that my guests save some room for the main course. A couple of pieces stacked together should do. The polenta can be made a day ahead, sliced and placed into the fridge. When required they can then be crisped on the skillet before assembly. One bite of this takes you to a warm, happy time. Mine I imagine, would be curled up on a sofa, with a book and my cat, if I had a cat.

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